Asia’s Rising Scientists: Vincent Tan

Assistant Professor Vincent Tan tackles the “fiendishly difficult” problem of optimal communication, all the while juggling professional and family life.

Vincent Y. F. Tan
Assistant Professor at the department of electrical and computer engineering and department of mathematics
National University of Singapore


AsianScientist (Sep. 9, 2015) – Assistant Professor Vincent Tan’s research interests include information theory, machine learning and statistical signal processing. He is also associate editor for coding and communication theory for the journal IEEE Transactions on Communications. Tan has won several awards for his work, including the A*STAR Philip Yeo Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Research in 2011 and the NUS Young Investigator Award in 2014.

1. How would you summarize your research in a tweet (140 characters)?

My research is information theory, which is the science behind communication systems, just like biology is the science behind medicine.

2. Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

Together with my collaborators, I have analyzed the fundamental performance limits of communication across several multi-sender, multi-receiver communication systems when the probability of error of decoding the transmitted messages is small but non-zero. This setting of error probabilities being non-vanishing is practical for real-life communication systems where the packet lengths are short in contrast to conventional information theory where it is assumed that the coding lengths can be arbitrarily long.

This line of research was compiled into a research monograph “Asymptotic Estimates in Information Theory with Non-Vanishing Error Probabilities” in Foundations and Trends in Communications and Information Theory Series. Some of the main ideas in the proofs of the theorems require non-standard adaptations of mathematical theorems from probability theory.

What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

I hope that I will be able to push the frontiers in our understanding of optimal schemes for transmission and compression of data across noisy media. While our communication systems are fairly robust, surprisingly we still do not know the optimal means to communicate from one sender to two receivers (the broadcast channel). This means that we do not know what is the ultimate performance limit we can achieve when we want to send data to two or more parties.

While the aim of solving this problem in its full generality looks fiendishly difficult at this point in time, I hope my team can make some progress in this direction in the near future.

4. Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

Ever since I was an undergraduate student, inspired by my professors in Cambridge University, I wanted to be a professor. Thus I worked tirelessly towards my goal. I was inspired to work on information as the mathematical elegance of the theorems is simply alluring and fascinating. Unlike applied or experimental sciences, this field is mathematically rigorous and unlike pure mathematics, there are immediate applications to communication theory and beyond.

5. What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?

I wouldn’t say there’s one single biggest adversity in my research. Every day is a struggle as I make only incremental progress (if any) on a daily basis. Good ideas are few and far between and I simply do not have enough concentration to generate a sufficient number of good ideas, given the other commitments that a professor has (e.g. teaching and mentoring of students).

6. What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today and how can we fix it?

I would say that a professor’s job is so multi-faceted, it’s hard to concentrate on a specific mathematical problem for a protracted period of time. And concentration or focus is what is needed to generate novel ideas to make quantum leaps in my field.

7. If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?

I would probably have been a high-school teacher. I have always loved to teach, showing the younger generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians how to learn by themselves and be passionate about a subject. Furthermore, I took up a scholarship after high-school in which one of the options for the deployment during my bond is to be a teacher.

Vincent Tan, his son Oliver and his wife Guo Huili, an IMCB Independent Fellow (IIF) at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. Vincent and Huili met while studying at the University of Cambridge. Credit: Vincent Tan.
Vincent Tan, his son Oliver and his wife Guo Huili, an IMCB Independent Fellow (IIF) at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology. Vincent and Huili met while studying at the University of Cambridge. Credit: Vincent Tan.

8. Outside of work, what do you do to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?

Outside work, I play an active role in the nurturing of my son, a two year-old toddler. I learn so much from him but at the same time, his energy and curiosity sap whatever remaining energy I have after work. Currently, I do not have any outside-work interests or hobbies but I hope to rekindle my love for running if I do find some time (which I think is not very likely).

9. If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?

This question is rather ambitious. While I mentioned previously that my research can find applications, it’s theoretical in nature and so it’s unlikely that my research can lead to the eradication of any world problem at this point.

Nonetheless, mathematical research hinges on the phrase by the eminent German mathematician David Hilbert “Wir müssen wissen–wir werden wissen”, which means “we must know–we will know”. I simply have the curiosity to advance human knowledge.

10. What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?

Spend some time outside Asia to interact with top people in your field in the US or in Europe.

This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Vincent Tan.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Leonard graduated from Monash University with a degree in communications. He enjoys reading about science and nature.

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